By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
By Galen Holley
TUPELO – “April is the cruelest month,” said T. S. Elliot in his famous poem “The Waste Land,” and for folks who work in disaster relief that’s often true.
The beauty of new flowers can make us forget that this is tornado season.
As WTVA chief meteorologist Dick Rice explained, these days the warm, moist Gulf air is moving northward, and dryer, cooler air masses are moving southward.
The cool air is undercutting the warmer air and driving it aloft, making conditions ripe for tornadoes.
April’s cruelty was felt particularly harshly in 1936, when the infamous Tupelo tornado killed more than 200 and injured scores of others.
At their office in western Tupelo, the folks at the American Red Cross are always ready, but in the spring everybody is more vigilant.
“We keep a close eye on things, and we make sure we’re in contact with MEMA and other state and local organizations,” said director Patty Tucker, referring to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
The Red Cross of Northeast Mississippi responds to house fires weekly, and in 2009 it responded to a disaster every month, from a tornado that hit Caledonia in January, right on through nasty weather that pummeled Pontotoc and Lee counties in the summer and fall.
The organization served more than 10,000 hot meals and logged countless hours cleaning, bandaging and generally putting things in order.
As the weather warms up the Red Cross is trying to raise public awareness about the rapidly changing conditions.
“A disaster plan is the most important thing,” said Tucker.
That includes keeping one gallon of fresh water per person per day in storage, along with a flashlight, a radio and extra batteries. It also means knowing that if a tornado strikes, people should go to the center-most location in their house, such a hallway, and stay away from glass.
And if they’re in mobile homes and trailers, they should move into a more solid structure.
Communication and networking are essential to disaster relief. The few people working in this field tend to know each other and share resources.
The Rev. Scott Wright, pastor of Lewis Memorial United Methodist Church in Calhoun City, works with two disaster relief groups that frequently cross paths.
He’s both the Red Cross liaison for his area and the coordinator of disaster relief services for the Tupelo District of the United Methodist Church.
Wright oversees 50 trained volunteers throughout Calhoun, Chickasaw, Monroe, Itawamba, Lee and Pontotoc counties. Each of the 10 districts of the United Methodist Church in the state has a coordinator like Wright.
His group is prepared for big disasters, but the volunteers also know it doesn’t take a tornado to cause huge damage.
Last month they helped a Calhoun County family remove a limb that had fallen on their home during a storm.
Wright and his crew used a huge, plastic tarpaulin to keep out the water until proper repairs were made, like the ones that stretch across billboards. Using tarps has become a Methodist specialty.
“We’re prepared to carry those to the site along with chain saws and other equipment,” said Wright.
If the Methodists are known for their tarps, the Southern Baptists are known for their chainsaw gangs.
Drop by your local Baptist association office this spring and you might find John Henry showing a group of volunteers how to safely and effectively wield a Husqvarna.
Henry works for the Mississippi Baptist Convention, teaching techniques like “limbing,” which is cutting the limbs off a fallen tree in such a way that it doesn’t roll and injure someone.
“We try to get folks ready for what they’ll face in the field, like awkward angles and trees leaning on houses,” said Henry.
Southern Baptists make up the third largest disaster relief organization in the country, behind the Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
Since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Southern Baptists have invested more than $22 million in rebuilding and recovery along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and they’ve employed more than 100,000 volunteers.
As the work of the Southern Baptists shows, the essential component in disaster relief is volunteers.
With only five paid staff members in 14 counties, the Red Cross has to rely on regular folks who give their time and talents.
About 300 volunteers assist the Red Cross in Northeast Mississippi, providing everything from grunt work, such as shoveling mud, or “mucking,” to highly specialized medical services.
Most organizations today require their volunteers to receive at least some training. It’s done periodically throughout the spring and summer, and for religious organizations it’s coordinated by regional offices, such as the Baptist association or the Methodist district office.
When it comes to disaster relief, organizers say Mississippi is leading the way in getting its act together, mostly because it was hit so hard by Hurricane Katrina.
“That was really the big moment,” said Jim Long, who coordinates the efforts of the Lee-Itawamba Baptist Association.
“That’s when we were able to start identifying people who were really passionate about this work.”
The folks at Christian Chapel Church of Christ in Amory also say Katrina was the genesis of their relief team.
Feeding and helping people in the wake of the storm helped church members realize that the poor see the face of Christ in a cup of cold water.
After they returned from the Mississippi Coast, they bought a trailer and equipped it with grills and all manner of cooking supplies. They put it to good use when tornadoes damaged homes in Lafayette and Union counties in 2008.
The Tupelo Salvation Army recently acquired a new mobile canteen that can be used to cook meals without the need of an outdoor kitchen.
“Sally,” as they affectionately refer to her, is a 16-foot diesel truck with a stainless steel kitchen and an 83-amp, 20 kilowatt generator.
With a staff of just a few volunteers she can produce 1,500 meals in the span of just a few hours.
After Katrina the Salvation Army mobilized 178 such canteens which served more than 14 million meals.
Susan Gilbert, director of social services for the Salvation Army in Lee County, said Sally is ready to serve if bad weather strikes.
First Strike help
The Southern Baptists also have two cook teams that can be dispatched on a moment’s notice.
These are volunteers from throughout the state who’ve been cross trained in several skills, such as first aid, chainsawing, mucking and chaplaincy.
They’re called First Strike, and it’s usually a call from the North American Mission Board that gets them started.
For smaller, local disasters, the county Baptist association is usually the hub of communication and resources.
Jim Long is a First Strike member who’s responsible for helping volunteers get their hands on the axes, generators, shovels and saws they keep stored at the Lee County warehouse.
They’re ready to help with a large disaster, or even if high winds or floods damage the local landscape.
Like all the disaster relief organizations, Long said, Baptists are eager to lend a hand to those who really need it, but they’re not here to clean up for the lazy.
“Flexibility is a big thing,” said Long, a retired physics professor. “A lot of this is just making a good assessment of the situation, then responding quickly and safely, and, at least for us, viewing it primarily as a ministry.”
Contact Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.